May 22, 2024

Cindy Peternelj-Taylor

Cindy Peternelj-Taylor

May 22, 2024

Professor Emeritus Cindy Peternelj-Taylor, retired in June 2022, having taught undergraduate and graduate students with the College of Nursing for over 30 years. During this time, she supervised a number of Master’s students, and served on a number of Master’s and doctoral committees. 

Much of her career has focused on professional role development for nurses and other healthcare professionals who work with vulnerable populations in mental health, forensic mental health, and correctional settings – clinical areas often steeped in stigma.   Since 1989, she has been actively engaged in the College’s successful biennial conference Custody and Caring:  International Conference on the Nurse’s Role in the Criminal Justice System. She was a founding member of the USask Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies, and served on the Executive Committee from 2011-2014, and again from 2018- 2021. 

Professor Emeritus Peternelj-Taylor is an experienced writer, editor, and scholar, who has published extensively in peer reviewed journals and books, and is a much sought-after speaker, nationally and internationally.   She served as the Associate Editor for the Americas of the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing from 1996-2006; she was an Editorial Board Member of the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services from 1998-2005 where she served as Guest Editor of four special issues devoted to forensic nursing.  In the fall of 2019, she was invited to serve as Guest Editor for a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Nursing Leadership  (2020) focused on Nursing in the Correctional Milieu.  Since 2010 she has held the position of Editor-in-Chief, of the Journal of Forensic Nursing. She is a Distinguished Fellow with the International Association of Forensic Nurses.

Getting to Know Professor Emeritus Cindy Peternelj-Taylor’s Forensic Mental Health and Corrections Experiences

Professor Cindy Peternelj-Taylor’s journey into nursing began during high school when she volunteered as a candy striper at St. Joseph's Hospital in Thunder Bay, where Cindy found herself drawn to the field. Despite encountering traditional gender role expectations, especially from family who viewed nursing as a suitable profession for women, Cindy was motivated by her positive experiences to pursue nursing as a career. Her interest in nursing deepened during her time at Lakehead University, where she enrolled in a Bachelor of Science degree program in nursing. This decision was influenced by a neighbour, a hospital administrator who advised her to opt for a degree program over the more common two-year diploma. Despite facing a high attrition rate in her program, which started with 40 students but graduated only 20, Cindy found her educational experience rewarding; the program's focus on primary prevention and other innovative approaches were considered novel at the time. She also noted the Program Director’s emphasis on education over ‘training’. Cindy’s pursuit of her professional aspirations was well underway. 

With a nursing career primarily focused on mental health, a path that was shaped by her early educational experiences, Cindy spent three summers during her student years at Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital, where she gained valuable experience. One particular summer, she worked on a locked unit with a small 12-bed capacity, an experience that sparked the flame of interest in forensic mental health nursing. After graduation, she moved to Saskatoon and worked at the regional Psychiatric Center, a federal correctional facility operated by Correctional Service Canada, further solidifying her interest in forensic mental health. She also gained experience in long-term care before pursuing her master's degree. Throughout her direct-care and academic career, she has remained committed to working with vulnerable populations, highlighting a deep-rooted passion for making a difference in the lives of marginalized individuals.

Cindy's retirement in 2022 hasn't paused her nursing work by any significant measure, as she remains actively involved in scholarship and continues to mentor and supervise graduate students. Cindy also holds the prestigious role of Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Forensic Nursing, a position she has held since 2010, after serving as an Associate Editor for the first five years of the journal's existence. Additionally, she is a member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Developmental Advisory Committee, where she contributes to subcommittees focusing on upstream prevention and early intervention and supporting mental health across the continuum of criminal justice involvement and lifespan.

Furthermore, Cindy is a key figure in the Custody and Caring International Conference on the Nurse’s Role in the Criminal Justice System Planning Committee, which she co-founded in 1989 to address the unique needs of nurses working in forensic mental health settings and the correctional milieu. This biennial international conference provides a platform for nurses in these specialties to learn and share knowledge in this niche specialty. 

Learning about the Human Condition: Lessons from a Career Advocating Within and For Corrections and Forensic Nurses

Reflecting on her career in nursing, especially in forensic or correctional nursing, Cindy emphasized the importance of maintaining a rich and full life outside of work to safeguard one's well-being. She recalled the advice of a Head Nurse, who encouraged her to leave work at work. Rather uniquely, Cindy used the loud clanging noise of the gate closing at the entrance of the Regional Psychiatric Centre to help her physically and mentally separate her occupation from the rest of her life. This separation helped her to manage the challenges of working with vulnerable clientele, including those who had committed serious crimes.

When asked about her own transition to professional practice, Cindy recalled the challenge of being recognized as someone with valuable insights and contributions, especially in environments where nurses must maintain responsibility for healthcare decisions, such as corrections. She highlighted the misconception that nurses must first work in other areas before entering forensic mental health or corrections, noting that significant clinical skills and expertise are also gained in these specialized fields. Despite these challenges, Cindy reflects that she navigated her transition successfully and has since become a respected leader and advocate in the field of nursing.

Cindy suggests that developing a combination of interpersonal skills and building relationships with correctional officers (and other colleagues) is crucial for gaining trust and ensuring effective collaboration. This is particularly challenging for nurses in provincial corrections or large institutions where they may be one of the few nurses on duty. In such environments, establishing trust with the non-healthcare correctional staff and demonstrating clinical competence are key to navigating the unique challenges of providing healthcare for incarcerated persons.

Cindy's dedication to her profession and her ongoing involvement in various initiatives demonstrate her commitment to advancing the field of nursing and supporting the well-being of both patients and healthcare professionals alike. Her leadership and advocacy continue to inspire others in the nursing community.

Considerations When Considering Corrections and Forensic Mental Health Practice

For new graduates aspiring to work in correctional or forensic settings, Cindy emphasizes the importance of understanding one’s motivations for choosing these fields. Care of incarcerated persons can be highly stigmatised, both for the clients and the staff. Nurses must also be cautious not to be drawn into the sensationalism surrounding high-profile cases or challenges within the institution. Instead, they should focus on their reasons for wanting to do this work and what they have to offer. 

Historically, incarcerated persons have experienced limited and inconsistent exposure to regular health care services, prior to incarceration.  Morbidity and mortality data suggest higher rates of disease, disability, and death when compared to non-incarcerated populations.  Incarcerated persons experience a higher burden of chronic illness, including cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, arthritis, various cancers, and liver disease.  Ageing in prison is a harsh reality, and dementia within this population is more common than previously recognized.

In provincial corrections, where the turnover of clients is often more rapid, nurses may encounter individuals in need of addiction support or those experiencing withdrawal. In these cases, nurses must exercise solid clinical judgement, as the severity of drug issues and the need for specialized care have increased over time. Cindy emphasizes the importance of a trauma-informed approach in all interactions, considering the trauma histories of clients and staff. This approach requires that administrators play a significant role in creating a caring and supportive environment. Working with clients accused or convicted of morally reprehensible acts can evoke negative feelings and strong emotions in nurses. Regarding rehabilitation, nurses play a crucial role in helping incarcerated individuals recover, including addressing trauma and helping them to redefine themselves considering their offences. The nature of corrections or forensic mental health nursing requires a careful, team-based balance of providing care and ensuring personal safety. Despite required vigilance against complacency for one's personal safety, Cindy reflects that teams of professionals at such institutions work tirelessly to maintain the security of each other; safety prioritization is often higher in these care contexts than nurses experience in other healthcare agencies.

In settings where mental health issues are prevalent, such as corrections and forensic mental health facilities, nurses play a crucial role in providing healthcare for individuals who may not otherwise receive adequate support. This dynamic can create a conflict between custody and care, as nurses strive to balance the need for security with the provision of compassionate, effective healthcare. 

The role of a nurse can vary widely depending on the setting. In forensic mental health settings, nurses may run groups, provide one-to-one counselling, and conduct educational sessions on issues related to mental health and addictions. In provincial correctional facilities, nurses often focus primarily on providing first aid, dealing with emergencies, and recommending transfers to local hospitals, and medication administration. Some corrections sites have limited medical facilities due to the age or design of their buildings, highlighting the need for improved infrastructure to support nursing care. Cindy suggests that for nurses to fully reach their full scope of practice, work needs to be done to improve the stability of staffing, staff-to-patient ratios, and staff support systems. 

Cindy stresses the importance for nurses to maintain a clear professional identity, distinguishing themselves as healthcare professionals rather than correctional officers, particularly crucial in prison settings where role boundaries can become blurred. Nurses must exercise their professional judgement and decision-making skills thoughtfully in such challenging environments, navigating the complexities of roles and decision-making with sensitivity.

From Cindy's perspective, new graduates venturing into the realms of forensic or correctional nursing should ideally receive structured mentoring and support, which has historically been impacted by nursing shortages. She underscores the pivotal need to seek out trusted colleagues for support, especially in light of encountering and navigating the potential risks of boundary violations that new nurses, and seasoned nurses alike, may be more vulnerable to experiencing. Cindy further emphasizes the critical importance of a clear understanding of the meaning of a therapeutic nurse-client relationship, and the importance of boundaries, and cautions against inadvertently reinforcing societal stigmas against incarcerated individuals.

The Future of Care for Incarcerated Persons

Cindy reflected on her experiences and the evolution of nursing practices within forensic and correctional settings. Encouragingly, she notes a rising trend of nurses actively choosing careers in corrections or forensic mental health. Cindy claims that this is a positive shift wherein these roles are viewed as equitably desirable career paths and specialties. She expresses hope for further advancements in end-of-life care and transitional community support for incarcerated persons. Despite challenges, she sees positive developments in the field, such as the increasing number of forensic nurses working in the community and the growing recognition of the importance of trauma-informed care.

We share in our celebration of Cindy’s dedicated and continued advocacy, both for nurses in these specialized fields, as well as improving care and outcomes for the benefit of incarcerated persons. The Journal of Forensic Nursing https://journals.lww.com/forensicnursing/pages/default.aspx or the Journal of Correctional Health Care https://home.liebertpub.com/publications/journal-of-correctional-health-care/664/overview are great resources for those interested in the fields, and be sure to look for the upcoming 2025 USask Custody and Caring conference details. Lastly, you can visit https://www.canada.ca/en/correctional-service/services/you-csc/working-csc/job-profiles.html#positions-health-services to learn more about Corrections nursing and job opportunities.

Nursing The Future™ acknowledges that nurses across this country live, work and play on the lands of our Indigenous Ancestors and we join our members in expressing respectful gratitude for this privilege.
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